of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable is here! Happily for me it comes recommended by Philip Pullman* and Terry Pratchett. Also by the Resident IT Consultant, who yet again has been permitted to take over. This time he has really gone to town, but a reference book like Brewer’s deserves it.
My ignorant immigrant self has never quite worked out what it’s for. Because I seem to have been adopted by an old looking version of Brewer’s, I got it out again for comparison, and I noticed it even smells old. It wasn’t until I read the review below, that I grasped it is a facsimile edition. (Doesn’t explain the smell, but…)
Anyway, this very useful book has been subjected to a harsh test, and it seems to have come out of it fairly unscathed. Funny that my very own King had something to do with it, but there you are.
“I first discovered Brewer’s Dictionary of Phase and Fable in my local library more than forty years ago and have owned a facsimile of the 1894 edition for many years. I have always regarded it as a reliable source of arcane nineteenth century facts so I was rather surprised to discover that new editions have been published every three or four years since 1959. This latest is edited by Susie Dent and published by Chambers Harrap.
A new edition implies new material and there are indeed new entries for such terms as ‘quantitative easing’, ‘Tea Party’, big society’ and ‘app’ together with new lists of Internet social networking acronyms (so there is no excuse for misunderstanding LOL) and eggcorns (phrases which enter the language as a result of linguistic errors by speakers who have misheard an original).
How do you review a reference book like this in an age when it seems as if any question can be answered instantly on the Internet? I decided to pick ten entries at random and explore how easy it was to learn about them on the Internet.
First came the Geneva Bull, a nickname given to the seventeenth century Presbyterian divine Stephen Marshall. You can find this on the Internet (mainly in 19th century works in Google Books), but it’s not in Wikipedia, or in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica from which Wikipedia derives its entry.
Next was half-blue. This is easy to find. Wikipedia provides a detailed account of the operation of the Oxbridge blues system, though you have to dig around in it to find out what a half-blue is. Most online dictionaries provide an equivalent definition.
My next selection was the hero of medieval English romance, Guy of Warwick. Brewer’s provides a succinct synopsis of the stories and legends surrounding him, mentioning the works in which they are to be found. Wikipedia provides more detail, and traces the role of the story in literary history.
Fourth was the Cabbage Garden, a nickname applied to the Australian state of Victoria. This would be hard to find from the Internet. Wikipedia has an entry for the Cabbage Garden but it refers to a burial ground in Dublin! Only when you know to look for its use in the context of Victoria can you find it using Google. Even then there is some dispute about its age as a nickname, though Partridge agrees with Brewer that it comes from the 1920s.
‘Sac and soc’ is a phrase used to describe rights in private jurisdiction conveyed in land transfers around the time of the Norman Conquest. You can find references to it in online dictionaries but it is only when you realise that it’s the same as ‘sake and soke’ that you find a more thorough account in Wikipedia.
My next choice came from a list of famous last words. Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king killed at the battle of Lützen in 1632 (during the Thirty Years War) is reported to have said ‘I am sped brother. Save thyself.’ I cannot find these words anywhere else. There seems to be fairly clear consensus that Gustaf Adolphus’s last words were Gud vare mig nådelig, literally translated as ‘God be merciful’ or simply ‘My God’, which is what most Internet sources report.
Next was yellow card, as used in football. Wikipedia provides a detailed account of yellow and red cards in different sports. Most online dictionaries explain what a yellow card is but Brewer’s goes slightly further by explaining its use in relation to a subsequent red card.
The eighth entry was one of several under Two, The two-legged mare, said to be a sobriquet for the gallows. It’s fairly easy to discover this from the Internet, though some confusion arises from the fact that the gallows that stood at Tyburn (roughly on the site of the modern Marble Arch) in London until 1783 had three verticals and was called the ‘three-legged mare’. This is presumably the origin of its use as an inn sign. Partridge confirms that both nicknames were used, and dates their use from 1565.
Liberty ships came next. Brewer describes them as ‘standardised prefabricated cargo ships of about 10,000 tons, much used by the USA during the Second World War.’ Online dictionaries tend not to provide so much detail, particularly in relation to their prefabrication or their size. Wikipedia, as usual, provides much more detail.
Finally came ‘Shurely Shome Mishtake’ included in a list of phrases from Private Eye that have entered popular culture. The origin of this phrase is fairly easy to find on the Internet though Wikipedia cites it as ‘shome mishtake, shurely’ and it is difficult to establish which form has priority. Possibly both were used.
Only four of these entries can be found in my 1894 facsimile. Two-legged mare and Geneva Bull have had their language updated but are essentially unchanged. Guy of Warwick has been completely rewritten and is now much more concise and less flowery, though without its former literary references. There are no entries for half-blue or sac and soc (despite the fact that both terms must have been current in 1894). Gustaf Adolphus’ last words, listed in 1894 under ‘Dying Sayings’, are ‘My God!’
This randomly chosen list of entries gives a good indication of the range of subjects covered by Brewer’s though there is no attempt at completeness: Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Dundee and Bonnie Prince Charlie are included but not the Bonnie Earl O’ Moray; the Dashing White Sargent is included but not Strip The Willow; God Particle is included but not Higgs Boson (a cross reference would be enough).
Nevertheless the book is tremendous fun to browse in, and I think that is its main strength. It is generally very well cross referenced so, for example, ‘Geneva Bull’ is referenced from the heading for ‘Bull’ as well as ‘Geneva’. This makes it easy to find an entry and often tempts the reader to follow an intriguing cross reference.
It would make a good source of quiz questions. For example, what links James Hogg, Sir Walter Raleigh and the eighteenth century prime minister George Grenville? Their nicknames. They are, respectively, the Ettrick Shepherd, the Shepherd of the Oceans (Edmund Spencer) and the Gentle Shepherd (William Pitt).”
* As Philip says ‘before you know what’s happened, it’s time for lunch.’ I know that feeling. Except at Bookwitch Towers it was more like next week.